FUNNY PEOPLE’S PUB
I suppose I should start by saying that I wasn’t planning on becoming a stand-up comedian. I was going to theater school and got real drunk one night and apparently booked a gig. I guess I was sitting next to the booker for a comedy club, and although I don’t remember how, I talked my way into stage-time before passing out in the bathroom. You think you do weird things when you’re drunk.
ACT 1 – THE BOSTON
Located above an Irish Pub in the heart of NYU country, The Boston Comedy Club was often described as a crack-house-ski-lodge-with-jokes. A dingy horizontal room built around a small stage, The Boston had a long back couch and a motley bunch of aspiring young comedians drinking in the wings. Lined with the headshots of those wise enough to get out while they still could, The Boston was the de-facto spot to spend an evening scribbling out crappy jokes and talking smack by the back bar. Offering half-price drinks to its regulars, The Boston became a home-away-from-home as it was both the only stage that would take us and the only place we could actually afford to drink.
It was a great time to be 22. Nights ended with the sunrise over West 4th as the other comedians and I would rip each other’s fetal jokes into the dawn. Ronin, the Irish bartender whose accent became more coherent the more Jameson you drank, laughed with us until morning and pointed us to our trains when it was time. Like most 22-year-olds, I was virtually immune to hangovers and would go to whatever work I had conned my way into with a smile. In fact, I even got a gig playing a drug-addicted teen in educational anti-drug theater, until they fired me for being too “in-character”. I was good.
Seeking to get more stage time, I took over the Wednesday night show at The Boston and got the club to give my patrons four-dollar apple martinis. (Sex and the City had just come out and we hoped we might help the process). Getting the audience of NYU students and homeless vagrants nice and trashed, the Wednesday shows were some grade A mayhem. Once a gigantic recently-released-from-jail comedian went mental when they turned off his mic off at 2 AM. Stumbling into a rage he destroyed the club and threatened to kill everyone in it, except myself. Right after he left I bragged to a waitress that he had forgotten me, when of course he popped his head back in because he didn’t forget me, and yes, I was also to be killed. We made up sometime later.
I miss The Boston because it represents a time in my life when I wasn’t old enough to understand consequence; I partied and hit the stage simply for the love of those things. Now, if I’ve had a crap day I’m likely to drink to get me further away from the experience but back then I’d drink to get me closer – closer to understanding, closer to funny, and closer to the Montrose avenue L-Stop, which you’d have to be a little drunk for because that shuttle-bus only comes every thirty minutes. In the snow.
The Boston is closed now. Having moved away from New York years ago I look back at that time in my life with a cloudy nostalgia and a smile. Eight years later I’m still a comedian, and still a drinker, and I’m damn proud to say I didn’t understand how much I loved either, until I found The Boston.
ACT II – THE ROAD
Now three years into stand-up, it was becoming increasingly clear that boozing at the Boston would only take me so far. Unless I made it out of the orphanage soon, I would run the risk of becoming yet another artifact on that long back wall. It was time to hit the road, the asphalt dream of limitless adventure and thirsty ears throughout the country. If it doesn’t kill you, the road will harden you into the boozy humorist you dreamt about becoming after your first crappy set.
Freshly dumped by a vindictive Dutch girl, I bought a shady Honda off a shady Craigslist ad and set off for Kentucky. My first “circuit” started at Louisville’s Comedy Caravan, and I was to follow up with a week of one-nighters on stages and in beds throughout the Ohio / Kentucky / Indiana area. The money was crap but I was starved for adventure. Little did I know how much awaited.
As it turns out, on the road, people really like to buy you drinks. As my fellow comedian Adam Richmond says, “When you’re funny, people want to buy you drinks, and I, personally, have a free drinking problem.” Following my first show at the Comedy Caravan I had a gaggle of locals extending fresh jack-and-cokes for my sipping pleasure. Back in New York no one bought me drinks, but here free drinks would appear in quick succession as the price of admission for middle-America’s finest to ask questions to the big-city comedian : “Hey man you ever get mugged up in that city? No? You ever mugged someone? Want a drink?” “Hey man you buddies with Jerry Seinfeld? You are?” (I wasn’t) “Want a fresh one?”
Drink after drink I was falling in love with the road. I celebrated on the Saturday show by sleeping with an overweight mom, recently separated from her husband because he tried to shoot her with a shotgun. I told this to Rich Ragains, the local I was performing with, to which he replied in a Kentucky drawl, “That’s not too uncommon ‘round these parts, she probably said something.”
After doing my shows at the Comedy Caravan, I then put my liver to the test at Bear’s Place in Bloomington, Indiana, which is famous for its four-shot opus: The Fuzzy Bear. Standing on stage I could see the legion of frat boys sipping from their bear-shaped goblets, and it was only when I began drinking them myself that I was able to deal with their constant heckling. Hell, two Fuzzy Bears in and I was an honorary alpha delta drinka and could swear I saw some of the geese painted on Bear’s old-timey curtains take flight.
Say what you will about alcohol, you’re gonna meet someone. I recently did a show in Florida and had the good fortune of having a guy called Boston Bob be my driver. Hailing from the south-end myself, Bob and I were immediately old friends and hit the town with Good Will Hunting force. By the end of the weekend photos of me in a Hooters outfit hit the internet. Because I put them there.
I think my good friend Ben Gleib put it best when he said “When we drink things get blurry, and blurry people look just like your friends look blurry, so it feels more like home.” And that’s the adventure. Being a comedian on the road is constant new-kid-syndrome, and you’re funny. As soon as you’re getting tired of high-school you blow town and by sunset you’re the small-town hero of the kegger you’re performing at. Not bad for a theater-major.
I had always known that alcohol was a great social lubricant, but on the road it’s WD-40. Since that first tour I’ve gone on the road countless times and I’m convinced there’s no better way to sip through our fun-loving country. Bourbon in Kentucky, beer in Colorado, Hooters in Florida – each place has its specialty and crappy jokes go with all of them. It’s Kerouac meets Fear and Loathing.
If the road has shown me one thing, it’s that no matter where you are, people are great when they’re having a great time. With a laugh and a beer you can meet just about anyone. If you’re kinda funny and up for an adventure, you’ll see things you’ll always remember. Even when you want to forget them.
ACT III – THE IMPROV
It’s 10:45 on a Wednesday and I’m standing outside the Hollywood Improv. Dave Attell nervously paces next to me as he chain-smokes and goes over his set in his head. Mike and Reggie, the Improv’s awesome door guys, take tickets with a smile as the line for the show stretches past the cigar-club a couple of doors down. The energy in the line is nuclear; word is Chapelle might drop by and I can hear people in line calling each other “bitches” already. Giving me a fist-bump and a hello, Mike peels open the rope and lets me in. I’m just hanging out tonight.
Opened in 1974 by Budd Freidman the Hollywood Improv has played home to comedy’s superstars for the last 30 years. The vibe is electric but lacks LA pretension you can smell like Jersey cologne. “Where else can you stumble from a bar to work?” Freidman says. It’s Cheers for comedians.
Back at the bar I sit down next to Daryl Wright, who I’ve known since the Boston. He’s a skinny black comedian with great jokes and a slight stutter. No matter how much he drinks, he never seems drunk, but maybe that’s because he’s drinking all the time.
“Cheaper than cocaine” he says to me, tipping back another Bud Light Lime. “Sure is”, I say. Eddie, the older of the two bartenders comes up to me and places a whiskey coke and bar-snacks in front of me. “Thanks Eddie.” I say, popping bar-snacks into my mouth. I love Improv bar-snacks. My intestines do not.
In the hallway, Daryl and I can hear a comedian getting yelled at for bringing a fire-dancer on stage during his act without asking. I look at Daryl and he gives me a, “white boys are crazy look”, and I nod back. Because we are.
The Improv is everything I love about being funny and not being in AA. The perfect blend of bar and stage, it has the familial feel of the Boston, without the chaos, and the adventure of the road, without the traveling. It’s a place where everybody looks after you, even when you attempt to host the ten o’clock after an all-day pub-crawl. If Daryl is driving you home, you’ve had too much to drink.
Picking up my whiskey-coke, I head into the hallway leading to the showroom. On the way I pass a guy in a silver-body suit rapping with Craig Robinson, the big black guy from the Office. I met Craig a couple months ago when I stumbled into the empty showroom and he was playing piano. We sang about a bird, and it was good.
I step into a group of comics at the end of the hallway. Some talk smack, some look over their notebooks. A cute girl walks past us and our eyes turn in unison as if she has magnets in her pockets.
Scottie, the guy that runs the Wednesday shows comes up to me. “Hey man, we had a dropout, you wanna do a set?” I perk up. This has just become a work-night. A month ago I gave Scottie a framed portrait of a granny I found on the internet for his 30th birthday. This was him paying me back.
Setting my drink down, I try to shift from fun to focus; you never know who could be in the audience. “Every comic that hangs out there is hoping someone will drop out and they will either get a spot…or a movie deal.” Says Iliza Schlesinger, winner of the most recent season of Last Comic Standing. She’s living proof. A week ago, Budd Freidman himself was in the audience and pulled me aside to tell me that I was talented and “shouldn’t say f*ck every other word”. Apparently my language had been profane, and Budd Freidman pointing this out was as uncomfortable as my profanity had been. “TV clean.” I tell myself, “8 mile.”
But what to talk about? I pat my pocket to find I’ve forgotten my notebook, which means I’m gonna have to wing it. “Don’t panic.” I say to myself, “Just open your mouth and funny stuff will come out.” Scottie pops his head around the corner. “You’re next.” He says. “Ross is getting off early”. I peek my head into the showroom and see Jeff Ross ending a monster set in front of a packed house. He looks so goddamn calm. I wish I was that calm.
I slip through the double doors and set my drink on the console trying to think of something funny. “Don’t put your drink above the mixer.” The showroom manager says. I take it off. No time to banter, the host is back on stage and the second he says my name it’s on. I make a set-list in my head. “Amsterdam, shrunk-to-a-gay, theater-school? No. Open with theater-school and run into Amsterdam, close with shrunk-to-a-gay. Don’t talk too fast.”
All of a sudden everyone’s applauding. The host has said my name and I gotta move. Finishing my drink in a single gulp I put in on a random audience member’s table as I walk to the stage. For some reason I flash back to when I got fired from doing anti-drug-theater, and I think I’ll begin with that story. The crowd seems rowdy enough, I’m with good people.
Taking the mic off the stand, the whiskey and coke hits me with a gentle pat. I look over the faces of the people staring back at me and take a slow breath. I feel like I’m on the Moon. Moving into the center of the stage I place myself under the brightest center spot
and find myself smiling. I want to tell these people everything. I feel they want the same.
A guy in the front row sips an apple martini trying to avoid making eye contact with me. He’s obviously self-conscious about drinking an apple martini and I think back to the Boston when it’s all we had. “The man in the front row is uncomfortable because he’s having an apple martini.” I say to the audience. “But it’s fine with me.”
I reach down to his table and grab his drink. Holding it aloft for the crowd I take a big sip.
“Just fine indeed.”